By every standard and measurement, for at least the past three decades, America has been seized in mass cognitive dissonance; the conflict in the individual when presented facts tend to contradict deeply held beliefs. As the mind cannot concomitantly accept two contradictory notions, stress builds and the need to decide in favor of one and dismiss the other becomes a requirement. The more deeply held the belief, the more important it becomes to rationalize against facts that would diminish or dislodge those beliefs.
Perhaps a non-partisan example can better illustrate how cognitive dissonance works. In the early 50s, the leader of a proselytizing UFO doomsday cult reported that a woman had received a message of Earth’s imminent destruction by aliens. When the prophesy failed, there was established dissonance that forced the group to foster the rationalization, not that the first prophesy was in error, but that the aliens had taken mercy upon the Earth, and spared it. The theory of cognitive dissonance was established in 1957 by social psychologist Leon Festinger as a way to explain the group’s behavior.
The Christian religion is rife with similar examples, among which funeral services are perhaps the most exquisite. Revelation describes in clear terms, albeit with outrageous imagery, when the elect shall be granted acceptance into heaven. Not until the return of Jesus to Earth and the final battle between good and evil has been concluded on the side of good will there be a final judgment. If Revelation is to be at all believed, only one of two conditions are possible: either the dead shall lie in the ground — or wherever the remains have been deposited — awaiting that ultimate, victorious day, or those who have been earlier accepted will be kicked out, to be judged once again, once that glorious day will have been reached. Nonetheless, and in a direct contradiction with Revelation, at almost every Christian funeral, the minister (priest, pastor . . .) assures the bereaved the deceased is already in heaven, or en route. In other words, the words in Revelation are not to be believed.
But if an entire book is not to be relied upon as valid, are there others? And within those others, are there sentences, paragraphs, chapters that are equally dismissible as unreliable? And, which ones? And if that is so, what of the validity of the entire book, and hence the religion itself?
It would seem the preceding would establish an incongruence that would tear the faith itself to shreds. But, in case of fact, it does not. It has not. Indeed, St. Augustine, following his thorough review of the inherent contradictions and erroneous propositions within Genesis, posited that the believer, caught in the grip of cognitive dissonance, should not rely upon a literal reading of that which is in the Bible, but should instead concentrate on the spirit of its teachings. In other words, cherry pick for that which suits the occasion and the immediate needs of the parishioner.
To return for a moment to Dr. Festinger, what fascinated him about the group was that in the face of evidence that their beliefs had been shown somehow erroneous, they did not diminish either the vigor of their beliefs or their proselytizing efforts, they intensified both dramatically! Exactly as has been the case with Christians since the second century. Revelation (c 95 AD), was written in full expectation that the return of Christ and the ensuing battle were quite imminent; not decades or centuries into the future. Regardless that there have occurred uncountable forecasts since that the End of Days was at hand, when obviously they weren’t, as with the UFO sect, proselytizing did not wane, it intensified, always with some rationalized explanation that obviously the conditions were not exactly right, but that in some not too distant a future, they would be. Cognitive dissonance resolved.
Nearly half of the American electorate has treated John McCain exactly the same way. He is proclaimed to be an American hero. Since our earliest childhood, all of us have been indoctrinated to believe that a “hero” must adhere to a specific set of elevated social standards, and that the hero cannot ever behave beneath those standards.
It’s a truly terrible and cruel thing to put any living person on that pedestal. Nonetheless, to our and Senator McCain’s travail, we have done that. Had he been born to almost any other parents, his deportment and scholarship in high school would not have permitted him entry to such a distinguished school as the Naval Academy at Annapolis. Had he been born to other parents, his deportment and scholarship while at the Academy would have left him expelled. When his first wife was left by an auto accident not the ravishing beauty he had married, he did not remain — for the worse part of “for better or worse” — by her side, he began philandering. When he was faced with the felt need to recount those years in Worth the Fighting For, and the documented divorce petition record, he lied.
When he was on a campaign stop in Pittsburg, the use of the Green Bay Packers’ starting lineup that he told his North Vietnamese captors were the members of his flight squadron suddenly became the Pittsburg Steelers’ offensive line. When he was challenged by a veteran, earlier this year, that his claim that he was supported by “every veterans group” and that he had been a staunch supporter of both the military and veterans, that in fact he was not supported by “every veterans group” and his senate voting record demonstrated an inexplicable hostility to both the active military and veterans, he lied. He even lied when he tried to make it seem as though he had supported the passed and signed new GI Bill, when he had actually fought tooth and nail against it.
When Meet the Press’ late Tim Russert reminded the Arizona senator that he’d admitted an inadequate knowledge of economics, even after being presented with the video clip, McCain contested that Russert had somehow misunderstood, that in fact he was quite knowledgeable concerning the discipline. These and so many more that even Ann Coulter has said that McCain is Bob Dole “without the charm,” and unlike Dole, McCain “lies repeatedly.”
John McCain has adorned himself with the mantel of three decades of foreign policy expertise. And yet, when he was on the tarmac in Iraq with Senator Joe Lieberman, McCain confused Shiia with Sunni, with al Qaida, and who was training which terrorists in which country. Corrected by Lieberman, he nonetheless managed to make the same gaffe the next day. The recent Supreme Court habeas corpus (Art 1, Section 9) ruling the aspiring candidate who will be expected to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution” confused with 5th Amendment “Miranda rights.”
NO!, none of these are the behaviors of a “hero.” But millions upon millions refuse to see a naked emperor. The truth conflicts with their deeply held beliefs: John McCain is a hero, he is a leader, he has a surfeit of “experience,” he is a straight-talker who will never lie.
By crowning McCain as a “hero,” we have set in motion a visiting upon all the distress of cognitive dissonance. And I worry, if so many in our country can actively pursue a contortion of reality, in order that a fiction not be disturbed, in order that cognitive dissonance be resolved in favor of a fiction, what genuine chance is there for us to truly meet the agonizing dilemmas before us?
— Ed TubbsReno, NV